I do not judge people for their personal interests, except for Bradley Cooper fans. That said, I do not “get” professional wrestling. The appeal of a soap-opera n’ sweaty-personal-space-invasion s’more makes my taste buds revolt. Yet so many thoughtful, creative folks I would never imagine could be wrestling aficionados have proclaimed their Greco-Roman love. Because British writer/director Stephen Merchant is precisely the sort of chap whose affinity for the wrassle defies logic to me, I was hoping his Fighting With My Family would finally provide insight into the invisible magic so many see.
Nope. The mystery remains, as Merchant’s flick is basically every cutesy working-class UK coming-of-age fable in which the hardscrabble life of a teen turns magical based on a unique vocation. It’s okay to call professional wrestling a vocation, right? Nobody pin me…
FWMF is based on the true story of professional wrestler Paige, whose real name is Saraya-Jade Bevins but who went under the ring name Britani Knight until she changed it to the name of her favorite character on Charmed. I have to tell you, of the things I expected to see in a WWE biopic, multiple Charmed references ranked just below “a discussion of Vince McMahon’s sexual assault allegations.” As the title rather pointedly explains, Paige (Florence Pugh) grew up in Norwitch, England among a family obsessed with wrestling. Her father, Ricky (Nick Frost), proclaims it a religion. Her mother, Julia (Lena Headey), named her daughter after the name she used in the ring. Her brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), has no ambition in life beyond making it to Wrestlemania.
When a talent scout (Vince Vaughn) taps Paige for a shot at the wrasslin’ big leagues, Zak goes into a ragey fugue state, a notoriously dangerous state for white dudes to inhabit. The crux of the film is Paige struggling with how much her career choice is reflexive familial obligation and how much is a legitimate devotion to the industry she’s followed her whole life. You’d think that Paige’s struggle with self would lead to a revelation at what it is about wrestling that is special enough to make it the focal point of one’s entire identity. Instead, FWMF skips that fairly critical element, having Paige leap from “Is this really what I want?” to “Hell yeah it is!” without really explaining that logical backflip.
Despite its failure to deliver on its entire premise, FWMF actually remains enjoyable on the strength of Merchant’s direction of an impeccable cast. A better movie probably follows Heady and Frost’s characters, who are far more compelling. Lowden’s sincerity allows him to fight outside the weight class of his limiting B-story. Pugh is a damn-near revelation, somehow nonchalantly and quietly making it believable that a talent seer would legit see her talent.
The problem is that the big moments don’t just miss, they’re missing. We don’t get a scene of Paige working from “I can’t do this” to “I have to do this.” We don’t get a moment where the reanimated corpse of Vince Vaughn sees Paige display the promise that only he saw in her. Most importantly, we don’t see Ricky make an impassioned defense of why wrestling matters; someone asks, and he literally just puts the WWE’s greatest hits on TV. FWMF is by no means unpleasant, it’s just an opportunity squandered. If a quirky dramedy from Stephen Merchant can’t speak the truth of pro wrestling into my heart, it is likely a truth I shall never know at all.
Grade = C